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Felix, Patterson take opposite paths to national championships

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Two women stood 8 feet apart Friday night, conducting interviews in a small room beneath the concrete grandstand at Drake Stadium. Each had just won a title at the USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships. There the resemblance seemed to end abruptly.

To the left, 5-6 and 125 pounds (not including her eight Olympic and world championship medals), was Allyson Felix, one of the most recognizable names in American track and field and one of the fastest and most decorated sprinters in the history of the sport. This week she was named to the President's Council on Physical Fitness, jetting in to the national championships directly from Washington (albeit with an overnight delay in Chicago because of thunderstorms).

To the right, 5-9 (although seemingly at least an inch or two taller) and 168 pounds (not including the burden of trying to make a living throwing a javelin, which is heaver than all of Felix's medals), was Kara Patterson, one of most obscure champions in a sport whose variety can forge many of them. This week she ate lunch in the same Des Moines sandwich shop where she dined before competing in the Drake Relays in April, which was appropriate because it was the last time Patterson had competed in a full track meet before Friday night (although she had twice thrown in throws-only meets in Tucson).

Track has always been a sport of haves and have-nots. Usain Bolt is a multi-millionaire, as were Carl Lewis, Michael Johnson and Hicham El Guerrouj. They earned six-figure appearance fees while racing in the same stadiums as anonymous -- but no less successful -- athletes scraping together a living because their event was not glamorous enough. That is the nature of the sport. Every champion will not be wealthy. In fact, most will not.

On Friday night Felix dropped down to the 100 meters and won her first national title in that event, using a long sprinter's strength of power through a brisk headwind (5.6 miles per hour) to a victory in 11.27 seconds.

"I haven't trained for the 100 at all,'' Felix said afterward, beaming as always (whether in victory or defeat).

She beat a field lacking any dominant short sprinters (of which Carmelita Jeter is really the only American in training), but it was a title nonetheless.

An hour earlier, Patterson had not only won the javelin with a throw of 218 feet, 9 inches, but she had also crushed Kim Kreiner's American record by more than 8 feet. The throw instantly made Patterson a player on the international stage -- only three women have thrown further in 2010 and only 12 in history have gone further. This, she hopes, just gets her into some big meets in Europe, which to this point have excluded her for lack of sufficient work.

"I've kind of struggled to get into meets,'' said Patterson. "I've been trying to get into the Diamond League meets [the track equivalent of the regular season, open only to the top competitors in each event], but I guess [209 feet, her previous best] wasn't quite good enough. I really want to force my way into those meets.''

She is at the nascent stage of what she hopes will be a rare professional career. She began throwing as a freshman in high school in Washington state and landed at Purdue. In college, Patterson never won an NCAA title, although she won the 2008 Olympic Trials (finishing 41st in Beijing) and last year's national championship.

After completing her eligibility, Patterson, 24, signed a sponsorship deal with shoe and apparel company Asics and also moved to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., near San Diego.

It is unglamorous living, but has its advantages.

"Living at the training center is a such a blessing,'' said Patterson. "There's no rent to pay, there are no bills to pay. You don't have to clean your room, you don't have to pay for food. Those are all things that a lot of [athletes] have to worry about.''

She also said that her Asics deal pays her $25,000 for an American record, so that's a nice bonus.

She's early in the pro-track curve. Last year she got herself invited to one European meet, the London Grand Prix. She not only threw poorly but also lost her bags and was generally disoriented.

"I learned a lot about relaxation and travel and being more prepared," she said.

Felix has known that stuff seemingly forever. She was an international sprint star before she graduated from L.A. Baptist High School in the spring of 2003. She competed in the World Championships that year in Paris. At the age of 17, she ran into my colleague, Phil Hersh of the Chicago Tribune, at an airport in Paris. She was traveling alone and did it quite smoothly.

At the age of 24, she already has two Olympic individual silver medals in the 200 meters (and a relay gold in the 4X400), along with three world championships in the 200 and two more relay golds. This winter she switched from adidas to Nike -- "It was in the works for a while,'' she said Friday night -- as her shoe and apparel sponsor, and she is one of the most familiar faces on the international circuit. She owns a home in the Los Angeles suburbs and, most assuredly, pays bills and pays for food. And she can afford to do so.

Yet as much as Felix and Patterson are different, they are the same in one critical way -- each is chasing an Olympic gold medal. After Felix won her third world title last summer in Berlin, she said in a press conference that she would trade all three of her world titles for Jamaican Veronica Campbell-Brown's 2008 Olympic gold. (After that race, Felix bravely worked the press mixed zone, gave Campbell-Brown due credit, and then sobbed for long minutes on her mother Marlean's shoulder in the basement of the Bird's Nest Stadium).

We are but halfway to the next Olympics, yet Felix can see it awaiting.

"I'm always thinking about it,'' she said Friday. "I worry about what's going on right now, but the Olympics are always there. They're never far away from my mind.''

In Patterson's event, no American woman has medaled in the Olympics since Kate (The Great) Schmidt twice won bronze in 1972 and '76 (she also threw further than Patterson with a javelin that was modified in 1999 to fly shorter distances). Patterson's work on Friday leaves her roughly 10 feet short of Olympic medal contention. It is huge distance, but roughly equivalent to the distance by which she improved her personal best in Iowa.

"Everybody wants to win the Olympics,'' Patterson said. Just ask Felix.

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